Once Sochi’s Olympics open on Friday, Canada’s women are quick to the ice, starting the tournament on Saturday against Switzerland. The men face-off with Norway on February 13. Today, hints from history that may or may not help maple-leafed teams find success. Originally published on February 16, 2010, “The Secret To Olympic Hockey Gold” appeared in The Globe and Mail.
The Winnipeg Falcons went over to Antwerp in 1920 aboard a ship called the Melita and when they disembarked what they did was win the hockey gold at the Olympics. Of course. I mean, obviously. That’s what Canadian hockey teams do at Olympics, in case you weren’t paying attention. How do we do it? Apart from skating faster than anyone else, passing better, scoring ridiculously good goals? The grit we have isn’t like other people’s, not to mention our pluck. If you could see inside our hearts, that’s what you’d witness, pluck and sinew, pride and gumption — mixed in with the, you know, regular blood. That’s what wins us golden hockey medals — that, and because we’re Canadian and nobody else is.
Or so we thought. History doesn’t necessarily agree. That’s worth knowing as we head into our own Olympics. That’s history job: to complicate what once seemed straightforward. History doesn’t like to see a glass of still water sitting on the counter. It just can’t resist dumping in a big spoonful of flour and stirring.
I’m not saying those 1920 Falcons weren’t great. Or the Toronto Granites, who won gold in 1924. I have nothing but respect for all those senior teams that used to ship out to Europe to defend our national honour at all those old Olympics and world championships. Belleville McFarlands! Terriers of Galt! Vees and Sea Fleas, Eaters of Trail Smoke! Hats off to all of you. Great work, Whitbyites, Lethbridgers, Pentictonavians!
Trounced is the word the newspapers used in 1920 to describe the 15-0 beating we laid on Czechoslovakia, a good word, too, deriving from the Middle English for bouncing mercilessly next to somebody on a trampoline until they fall down and still you don’t stop, even when they say please. We’ve done a lot of that over the years, bamboozling Hungarians by 15, shamwowing the Austrians 23-zip. Early Olympic hockey looks like we were punishing all the novice hockey nations for the crime of loving our game so much, wanting to learn from us, be like us.
Not so. In 1920 the Falcons ran practices and clinics for their opponents before games, tutoring before they trounced. In 1924, the Granites schooled the attentive Swiss in the primary hockey principle that if you let us score 33 goals while notching none for yourself, well, that’s going to be pretty embarrassing for you.
Tough love? You have to remember, hockey was really the only imperialism we had available to us for a long time. And, plus, did we have a choice? A member of the 1924 team explained how it worked. “We weren’t trying to rub it in. … They would never improve if we played down to their level; instead they should expect to come up to our standards. Besides, it doesn’t flatter anyone to ease up on them; and it hurts the morale of your own team when you ask the players to give less than their best.”
Exactly. What we also realized was if we were going to do this triumphing properly, what we really needed was to do was develop a set of verbs that truly reflected and paid tribute to the magnificent margins of our whompings. It took a while, this, mostly because of our national inbred Canadian inclination to hold back, not to seem sore in our winning.
Though if we were so merciless on the ice, did it really matter how kind we were in print? Topple, overwhelm, stun: all the vanquisher verbs we take for granted now have their roots in those early hockey Olympics. A couple of useful rules of thumb: verbs associated with fairytale ogres marauding through tiny upland villages also work well for big hockey victories, e.g. conquer, smash, crush, squash, quash. The contractor renovating your basement is a pretty good guide, too: hammer, plaster, and shellac. For some reason culinary terms don’t really translate, which is too bad when you consider how the satisfaction involved in speaking aloud words like fricassee and spatchcock.
These are lessons that that Soviets never really absorbed. To them, when then smoked us 11-1 at the 1977 world championships, the best they could come up with was defeat. “I hate them,” said Walt McKechnie, a member of the losing team. “I don’t like their way of life. I don’t like anything about them. They stink.” Two years later, in Moscow, they drubbed us 9-2. Sorry: “They insulted us,” is how Alan Eagleson saw it. “I felt they were a little cruel in rubbing it in,” he steamed. “There was no need for it.” Had they never heard of respect? “I just hate to let them think they can treat us arrogantly and get away with it.”
We’d like to think that these Olympics of ours will be decided on merit, and that our alloy of Crosbys, Iginlas, and Brodeurs will provide all the mettle we need to win. And maybe in the future, one day, that’s exactly how Olympic hockey tournaments will be decided. In the meantime, we’ll have to work with what we’ve got. What we know now, after nearly a century of sending hockey teams to Olympics and world championships, Summit Series and Izvestia tournaments, Cups Spengler, Canada, and World, is that hockey adds up to no more than a quarter-measure of the formula that decides these things. Without the other three determinants — nautical, nominal, botanical — there’s only so far that the hockey can carry us.
1. The Ship They Came In On
This one is pretty obvious. Does anyone really believe that the 1920 Falcons would have won Olympic gold without Canadian Pacific’s Melita to ship them to Belgium? Where would they have been without it? Saint John, New Brunswick is where. On the voyage out, nobody got seasick. The ship’s carpenter is supposed to have carved all the sticks that the Falcons wielded in Belgium, which is pretty great, if true.
I guess the Toronto Granites could easily have steered an overland passage to Chamonix in 1924. And you know what? They probably would been better for it, just in terms of bonding as a team and, you know, generally toughening themselves up as they trekked the sea-ice between Alaska and Siberia, cutting down to meet antiquity’s Salt Road, on to the Silk Route, quick left at the road to Damascus, straight on through via the Appian Way and the Path of Righteousness. Instead they shipped over aboard Montcalm. Continue reading